The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

     by Kate McMullan

I normally don't expect a lot out of children's versions of the story. They tend to look a lot like Spencer's 1997 musical, and while that's not bad... well, it's just not really anything at all. There isn't a lot of depth, and the kiddies don't really come away with many new ideas besides "Don't be mean to other people," which one hopes they are learning at home anyway. But: McMullan: she has surpassed my expectations.

 

Chapter 1:

 

McMullan adds a backstory here for Erik, which covers much of the same ground that Kay's novel will do in the next year but which takes a few different directions. Interestingly enough, Erik's childhood includes both mother and father in this version, despite the fact that Leroux's Phantom never mentions a father figure of any kind; McMullan's Erik asserts that his father "never even saw my face", but there is nevertheless quite a bit of childhood abuse attributed to said father in this early chapter, which raises the questions of why Erik's father accepted his mother's injunction never to remove his mask, and why his loathing of Erik is so strong if he has never seen his face. While McMullan doesn't explore the home life (which resembles the backstory attributed to Erik in Wellen's short story of the same year, intriguingly enough, though there appears to be no correlation between the two) very much, the abuse of parents is a much easier way to introduce a child audience to Erik's ostracization since birth, since the idea of whole-society rejection is a little much to swallow before age twelve or so. Being rejected by one's parents is a powerfully miserable idea for most children and drives home the idea of his life being one of overall rejection nicely.

 

The style of the book is extremely simple, very obviously written for children just beginning to tackle their first chapter books. While it's a little bit choppy in places, it's nevertheless serviceable, and definitely much more accessible than many versions of the story ostensibly written for children (the Dickens abridgment, for example).

 

Erik's acceptance into the carnival show strikes a powerful chord for a child reader; the longing to find a place where they belong or to otherwise be with people who are like them is one that most children experience as they struggle to find a place in peer groups and learn how to fit into society in general, so the idea of Erik at last finding somewhere he "belongs" is a good choice for a kids' adaptation. There is another layer of irony inherent in Erik's joy at being accepted into the carnival; later in his life, as we know from Leroux's novel and as McMullan will hit up in the second half of the book, Erik's real longing is to be accepted into normal society, not into a society already disenfranchised and excluded.

 

I was ruminating, and I think that this idea of Erik being able to be accepted into a "society of outcasts" is what makes the use of a carnival or circus idea so prevalent in literature that seeks to add a backstory to Erik's life (and, of course, Leroux himself mentions something similar in passing). It makes a pretty powerful statement that readers, writers, and even Leroux himself choose to find a situation in which Erik can fit into society, in however much of a peripheral fringe way; are we entirely incapable of conceiving of a character that has no place in society whatsoever, or is it just that such a character would be unsympathetic in the extreme because of the inherent threat that we see in a character outside our own sphere of behavior? I'd go so far as to hazard that a Phantom that never had any contact with society at all wouldn't be "human" by most casual reader standards at all, and we'd probably be far more inclined to view him uncompromisingly as a character whose otherness and lack of drive to at least try to conform to society put him at a level of willful danger/evil.

 

Chapter 2:

 

McMullan's Erik asserts that he has no name when asked by the carnival performers, which was a bit of a stretch for me; yeah, his parents obviously didn't like him at all, but if they decided to raise him (however inhumanely) instead of drowning him at birth, I would think they'd have had to give him a name. Did they just yell "hey you" at him all the time? The exception to this that I can think of is that, if the parents had believed the baby to be damned because of his face (a belief said baby is wont to subscribe to, in later life), they might not have wanted to have him christened by the Church; but then again, it could also have been a powerful motivator to hie themselves and their bundle of ugly joy to a priest. I'm sure the kids reading this book didn't spend nearly as much time wondering about it as I did.

 

On another level, Erik's lack of name is a very pointed way of further removing him from society; not having a name is unthinkable in modern society, and has in the past been used as a form of extremely harsh punishment in some cultures. At this point in our social development, we associate names with almost all inherent facets of our character; McMullan's choice to not give Erik a name is tantamount to stating that he does not exist, as far as society is concerned.

 

Erik is named by the fortune-teller in the carnival, but more interesting than that is his rejection of his own parentage when questioned. He asserts that "I never had a mother", a repudiation of his own mother that is downright shocking to a child reader, and poignant to an adult reader who notes the response that is identical to Leroux's Phantom's - that is, Erik is rejecting that which has rejected him, and becoming the monster that society has already labeled him. On another level, this gives Christine's mother role later in the story quite a bit more oomph; rather than being a replacement or supplement for the inadequate mother of Erik's childhood, she is now, as far as he is concerned, the only mother he's ever had.

 

Erik's more outré skills from Leroux's novel, including his ventriloquism and skill with sleight of hand and stage magic, are here given an explanation when he begins to pick up skills from the rest of the carnival performers wherever possible. There are two interesting thoughts that came to the forefront for me when the other performers, predictably, become upset by Erik's "theft" of their closely-guarded acts and secrets; for one thing, there is the interesting point for the child reader to ponder when Erik asks, "Was learning the same as stealing?" The portrayal of the carnival-goers as jealous and McMullan's ongoing emphasis on Erik's capacity to learn throughout the book cast learning in a favorable light as something wonderful and even coveted, encouraging kids to seek out knowledge, which is an idea I can really get behind (in fact, it touts knowledge as a means to combat insecurity and feel good about oneself - Erik proclaims that, armed with his new skills, he is "No longer a shy boy; I felt sure of myself"). The second thought is that here we can already see Erik's ability to "fit in" with society, even in a peripheral sense, is crumbling; despite his initial belief that the carnival performers were "like him", it becomes obvious that he is still an outcast in this situation, further isolating the character and increasing the reader's sympathy.

 

Chapter 3:

 

I stumble a bit when McMullan shifts the focus to Persia (again, Kay will follow this tangent from Leroux's backstory more fully in her 1990 novel); while the idea of Erik building the Shah's palace isn't a new one, this particular version of Erik has had no architectural training or experience of any kind, as far as we know. However, from the child's point of view, building a palace doesn't differ greatly from his other skills; it's just another example of Erik's ingenuity, and so it is pardoned as quickly as it comes up.

 

McMullan's version of the Daroga, too, seems to have quite a lot in common with Kay's; in particular, the fact that he fetches Erik from abroad for the Shah's amusement and then aids him in his escape and endures punishment for his actions seem to follow the same general pattern. However, Kay's novel and this tiny adaptation were being written at almost the same time, one presumes (they were published only a few months apart), and there seems to be no way that they could have overlapped enough for one to influence the other. Since both novels are drawing heavily from the original source material, this is probably just a case of similar execution.

 

The next sequence involves Erik fleeing to Turkey and serving the Sultan there for some time, which interlude is the very first inclusion of this bit of Leroux's novel that I've yet seen; the most discombobulating element of this portion, which mostly serves to shore up Erik's record of not being able to fit in anywhere, is the mention of the highly realistic, life-sized robots Erik creates for the Sultan. The word "robots" (Leroux's original novel used the more antiquated word "automata") is extremely jarring in the context and time period of the Phantom story, but the idea isn't all that far-fetched; for example, "The Nightingale" by Hans Christian Andersen was a well-established fairytale by the time of Leroux's novel. It seems more likely to me, from the description, that McMullan (or possibly even Leroux?) is referencing the life-sized clockwork dolls of Tchaikovsky's ballet version of the Nutcracker story (which is based upon Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", which is of course a tale of a girl who breaks a curse upon someone by offering love in spite of physical hideousness); while the ballet didn't really make its way into the West until the early 1920s or 1930s, the story had been around since the mid 1800s and the ballet had already been written in Leroux's day, so the clockworks clearly aren't an idea that was entirely foreign to the time period.

 

Chapter 4:

 

Erik makes the jump from longing to have a community of others "like him" to longing to be a part of the community of normal society here, which will characterize him for the rest of the book (and which, of course, characterized him throughout Leroux's novel). There's a great deal more implausibility in this chapter - Erik is "given the contract to build the foundation" for the new opera house, despite the fact that it is a monolithic edifice and would have any number of contractors working on the foundation especially, and he later builds his own pipe organ from scratch - but again, children most likely wouldn't notice these questionable moments, and it's nice to see that a concrete world is being built for the younger audience, even if it wouldn't satisfy an older one.

 

Chapter 5:

 

McMullan hits upon the idea of a "kingdom... in the dark" for Erik, effectively elevating him from the lost child who didn't belong in his own childhood to a ruler with his own domain. The image is powerful in Leroux's novel, but especially effective for the child reader who has been following events up until now.

 

The frequently-seen idea that Carlotta is less than talented makes a brief appearance here, but it's presented as mostly Erik's personal dislike of her voice, since her public and all the critics are mentioned as adoring her. This seemed as though it could have been a hint of Lloyd Webber influence, but it could just as easily be a simple desire to justify Erik's removal of the diva from her spotlight.

 

Chapter 6:

 

Erik's demand that Christine love him and only him is very nicely done, extremely childish to the adult reader but very earnest. His obvious lack of experience helps keep him sympathetic even as McMullan makes it clear to her readers that Erik is wrong to make this demand, and his narrative note that "I knew so little of love, I believed her" lets us know that his experiences will mature him in this arena as the story continues onwad.

 

Chapter 7:

 

There isn't too much that's overly notable here, as most of it is sticking fairly closely to Leroux's novel, but Erik's note to the manager includes a bulleted list of demands and an order to give him his "allowance", which I found entertaining and which is easily understandable for children.

 

Chapter 8:

 

Christine's shock and betrayal at discovering that her "angel" is mortal is preserved here very believably, and while Erik's confusion and distress are very child-like and allow a child reader to sympathize, it is also very clear that his lying to Christine was a wrong choice, and the consequences are framed in such a way as to pound that moral home.

 

There does seem to be some obvious borrowing from Lloyd Webber here in the scene wherein Erik sings his "sweetest song" and lulls Christine to sleep despite her unhappiness with the whole mess; it's reminiscent of the "Music of the Night" scene from Lloyd Webber's stage musical, but since that scene itself was borrowed from Erik's performance of the romance of Desdemona in the novel, it probably doesn't have much to do with said musical.

 

Chapter 10:

 

Erik's invitation for Christine to spend time with Raoul is significantly kinder than it was in Leroux's novel, further increasing his general level of sympathy from the reader; his shock when he discovers that she does not love him is palpable, and again very child-like, which continues to encourage identification from the reader.

 

Chapter 13:

 

My notes just say, "Yes!", because McMullan allows Erik to say one line which sums up the emotional growth and redemption he has achieved by the end of this wee little book: "Because you have loved me, I can let you go." Rather than syruping things up as many children's versions seem to want to do, McMullan allows Erik his redemption and allows children to understand that the consequences of his evil actions (while he doesn't directly murder anyone in this version, people still die in the chandelier crash and his other behavior is hardly exemplary) are very much real and present.

 

Paul Jennis's illustrations are just the right level of creepy (or possibly even a higher one than I would have chosen... skull-faced Erik is very disturbing-looking, even for me as an adult) or intriguing to keep things rolling along at a nice pace. My favorite is the illustration of Erik playing his organ on page 82... take a look and tell me that doesn't look a bit like Claude Rains! (Well, if the picture quality wasn't so poor, you'd be able to tell that it looks like Claude Rains.)

All content © 2007-2019 Anne Myers